Directed by: Keith Maitland.
Starring: Violett Beane (Claire Wilson), Louie Arnette (Ramiro Martinez), Blair Jackson (Houston McCoy), Monty Muir (Neal Spelce), Chris Doubek (Allen Crum), Reece Everett Ryan (Alfred(Alfie) McAlister), Josephine McAdam (Rita Starpattern), Aldo Ordoñez (Aleck Hernandez Jr.), Vicky Illk (Brenda Bell), John Fitch (Billy Speed), Karen Davidson (Margaret C. Berry), Jeremy Brown (Jerry Day), Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa (John Fox), Cole Bresnehen (James Love), Timothy Lucas (Kent Kirkley), Cole Bee Wilson (Tom Eckman), Lee Zamora (Anthony Martinez).
Keith Maitland’s Tower is one of the best documentaries of the year because it does something that is very hard for documentaries to do – make an event from the past feel vital and fresh – as if it’s playing out in real time in front of you. The film is about August 1, 1966 when Charles Whitman climbed the Bell Tower at the University of Texas, and opened fire at those down below – shooting for an hour and a half, hitting nearly 50 people, and killing 18 of them, before he was finally killed himself. Whitman is not a figure in Tower – the only image we see of him is as a kid, where he’s holding a gun in each hand. His name is not mentioned until the final moments in the film – when the film shows Walter Cronkite addressing the crime on TV. The film isn’t interested in Whitman, or why he did what he did – an incident that in many ways has become the prototype for all the angry, young, white men who open fire and kill dozens of people – something that happens with alarming regularity in America. Instead, it concentrates on what it was like to be one of those people on the ground – the victims who laid their bleeding, or watching as others bled. The cops and the bystanders who became heroes that day – and those who didn’t. It is a harrowing and heartbreaking film.
The way Maitland makes the film is key to its impact. Much of the film is animated – using the rotoscoping style that Richard Linklater used in films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly – where he animates over top of real people and locations. Some of the shots in the movie are entirely rotoscoped – sometimes, just parts of it are, overlaid against the real backdrop of the locations. He uses actors playing the parts of those on the ground – who tell their story, based on real life interviews for the survivors. There is no preamble to the film – it just gets started right away – with the first two people walking through the quad, hearing shots ring out and falling to the ground shot (one survives, one doesn’t). From there, the film tells the story of that victim – a pregnant woman, who is unable to move, as well as many others – people who got involved and helped the injured, and those who did not (as one woman heartbreaking says, it was the day she realized she was a coward – those around her went out to help, and she didn’t).
It’s clear from the outset that Maitland and company are not interested in making a gory film – one that exploits the victims, nor makes what Whitman did glamorous – in any way. The film never shows the gunman on that day – not even when the two cops and one bystander eventually get to the top of Bell Tower and kill him. When the bullets hit the various people, the screen turns almost all read – with the people being white silhouettes on that background. Maitland and company do not emphasize the blood at all.
The film eventually reveals the real people who survived that day – the people whose words are spoken throughout the film, by the actors playing them. Maitland doesn’t animate those moments – he lets them play out, as we see the pain and trauma these people felt. What happened that day only last 96 minutes – but it haunts everyone involved forever.